As I toss the empty heart-shaped box in the trash, a thought occurs to me that I dare not share with my husband: I would love him even without the double-chocolate Valentine’s Day truffles. It’s not the predictable expressions of love that make a relationship endure, but the day-to-day efforts (like truffles on a nondescript Wednesday, for example) that keep couples happy.
First of all, let’s state the obvious: There are some things that good relationships just have to have — it’s no secret that without trust, honesty and attraction, you’re waging an uphill battle. And let’s not sugar-coat what we mean by “happy.” Even the most blissful of spouses get the urge to fling the occasional forkful of mashed potatoes at each other for leaving crumbs in the butter.
But all that aside, happy couples make a conscious decision to be just that: happy. And they do simple, practical things to keep the spark bright.
Talk, talk, talk
With a heavy family schedule, it’s quite possible for a couple to get to the end of the week and realize they haven’t communicated much more than to say, “Why is there a Tonka toy in the fridge?” It’s a dilemma Lori and Marleau Belanger faced. Their solution? Game night. “A few nights a week, after the kids go to bed, we sit down at the kitchen table and play a game. That way we can just focus on each other.”
And to connect between games of backgammon, the Winnipeg couple relies on email. “It sounds weird because we’re in the same house and we use the same computer,” says Lori. “But if I want to tell him something’s coming up, like a family event, I’ll email him and remind him about that, and that way I know he’s seen it and he can put it on his calendar.… Sometimes he’ll just send me little jokes and stuff.”
… each other, of course. “Date night” is a constant refrain of couples who describe their relationship as happy. “You know you’ve got the babysitter, so you know the time is yours,” says Joan Marsman, a Toronto marriage and family therapist. “You can dress for it, you can look forward to it, you can fantasize about it. People need that adult time.”
Christine and Dave Wilson of Victoria have put a spin on date night. Two years ago, they joined a coed curling team and now, every Thursday night, they leave their two sons with a sitter and hit the rink. Christine says the team aspect ensures they won’t miss a night because they know that people are counting on them. And, she adds, “the communication is definitely a lot better. Whether it’s the drive out there, while we’re standing waiting for our turn or having a drink afterward, we have that time when we’re not being interrupted by ‘Mom, I want juice,’ or ‘Dad, I want a story.’”
Spend time apart
OK, this one may seem a little counterintuitive, but it goes back to that old cliché that you can’t make another person happy if you’re not happy yourself. And pursuing friendships and interests outside of your marriage can make you more fulfilled and rounded, both as a person and a spouse. “As much as I’m a partner, I’m an individual first. And he fell in love with that individual, so maintaining that is part of the relationship,” says Orillia, Ont., mother of two Lisa Day, who makes sure she regularly goes out with friends and to the gym.
Let small things slide
Day made a conscious decision to pick her battles after her husband, Brad, said he felt like he couldn’t do anything right. “My heart just went down to my toes,” she says. “It’s so easy to get stuck saying, ‘You didn’t put the toilet paper roll on,’ or ‘You left the lid up.’ And you don’t even realize you’re doing it.”
Allison and Tom Dresen of Wawanesa, Man., have a special perspective on keeping trivial irritations from getting in the way of enjoying each other. He’s in the Canadian Forces and has served in Bosnia and Afghanistan. “Does it really matter that he didn’t do the dishes when he might be gone [on duty] tomorrow?” says Allison. “You get used to letting go of things and keeping your eyes on what’s important and having a happy relationship.”
It’s advice similar to what Marsman regularly tells her clients: “Let small things go, don’t hold on to grudges.… If it’s small, let it be small and let it stay small.”
It’s not if you fight, it’s how you fight. Fighting, when done right, should help resolve conflict, not create more.
Marsman says good fighters stick with the issue they’re fighting about and try not to take it too personally. “They listen to their partner’s point of view, acknowledge it and discuss it.”
“We try to be civilized about fighting,” says Kerri Gingerich of Zurich, Ont. “If it’s negative and it doesn’t need to be said, just don’t say it. If you only get excited about the big things, then you take each other more seriously.”
When Lisa and Brad Day find an argument is getting too heated, they try this tactic: “We give each other the opportunity to take off, cool off, come back and then talk,” says Lisa.
Sex is a connection that you share only with your partner (OK, unfortunately not always, but that’s another article…), so making sure that bond is strong helps the relationship. Gingerich feels that sex gives her and her partner, Barry Willert, a deeper level of emotional communication. So when they noticed a drop off in sex after the birth of their son, Ryan, they took steps to bring back that lovin’ feeling. “We’ve just learned that you have to take the time and once you do make it a regular thing, then physically it’s also better. When the relationship is good the sex is good, and when the sex is good the relationship is good.”
There’s no magic number when it comes to frequency. “Everybody has a different tolerance or need for affection and touch,” says Marsman. “So as long as those needs can get met, you’re OK.… When you’ve got a huge discrepancy, you can have problems.” In fact, the Todaysparent.com 2005 Sex Survey of almost 10,000 online visitors revealed that 33 percent wanted sex more frequently than their partner, while 42 percent said their partner wanted sex more often than they do.
Of course, there’s also a lot to be said for the more PG-rated versions of physical connection. “We hold hands like we did the first time we met,” says Kim Reid of Toronto. “We are committed parents, but we were a couple before that, so we try to keep that alive.”
In fact, a kiss, hug or pat on the shoulder is a quick and simple way for couples to make each other feel loved. “We have a kiss and a hug every morning before he goes to work,” says Gingerich. “And we always kiss before we go to sleep, even if we’re fighting or angry at each other.”
Say thank you
It’s great to have a comfort level with your spouse that allows you to eat with your fingers or shrug off the occasional gaseous release, but it’s still good to mind your manners most of the time — it makes people feel appreciated and respected.
For example, Leanne and Stefan Grammenz of Toronto make sure they acknowledge even the most mundane day-to-day chores. “Stefan will thank me for doing the dishes,” says Leanne. “It’s funny, but I don’t mind doing it as much because I know he notices.”
Keep it surprising
When Marleau Belanger complained about the prospect of celebrating his milestone 30th birthday on Christmas Eve, his wife, Lori, threw him a 29½ birthday party in June. And for their third anniversary last July, Marleau hired a four-seater plane to fly the two of them over Winnipeg. “I would never have guessed in a million years that he could have planned something so special for us to do.”
Of course, endearing surprises can also be simple, like leaving notes or, in Lisa and Brad Day’s case, impromptu dances across the kitchen floor: “We play a lot of music in the house and I’ll just grab him and start dancing. He just goes along with it and the kids love it.”
Make the effort
If you take your relationship for granted, all the other secrets listed here are useless. “It’s really important not to ignore your relationship because that’s the greatest gift you’re going to give to your kids,” says Marsman.
“After five years of marriage, we’re still figuring things out,” says Leanne Grammenz, who with her husband, Stefan, regularly discuss their relationship. For example, she says, when their son, Willem, was born two years ago, they had to work through all the new emotions and anxieties that come to the surface with such a life-changing event. “There were things we didn’t know each other was sensitive about and we had to work at it and adjust.”
And for those who have the view that good relationships shouldn’t take effort, Marsman has this response: “People work at their careers, they work at their hobbies. And I think in good marriages, long-standing, healthy marriages, people make an effort to make it work.”